Highlights from Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech

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US President Joe Biden delivered his final State of the Union address before November’s presidential election on Thursday night, in a pugnacious speech to a joint session of Congress aimed at jump-starting his re-election bid and laying out his legislative agenda.

The Democratic president made no explicit mention of his likely Republican opponent, Donald Trump. But in an overtly political address, Biden directed frequent jabs at his “predecessor” and warned that “freedom and democracy” were “under attack, both at home and overseas”.

Here are the key takeaways from Biden’s 2024 State of the Union speech.

Did Biden dispel doubts about his age?

Biden, 81, has faced persistent questions about his age and fitness for office, especially after special counsel Robert Hur described him as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”. Recent polls find many of his own supporters think he is too old to lead effectively.

But Biden pulled no punches on Thursday night as he sought to convey vitality and competence, shouting at times as he tore into Republican lawmakers and his likely ballot box rival. He occasionally coughed and stumbled over his words, especially as the evening dragged on.

Biden also cracked jokes at his own expense, saying: “I know I may not look like it, but I’ve been around a while. And when you get to my age, certain things become clearer than ever before.”

Nancy Pelosi, who at 83 is two years older than Biden, told CNN she thought the president “showed great vigour”. “He is old,” she said, but it was “important for him to embrace his age”.

Veteran pollster Frank Luntz, who conducted a focus group with 19 swing voters after the speech, said members of the group “felt like he was seeking re-election rather than doing a State of the Union, and a whole lot of them felt that they were being yelled at”. “They described it as what an old man does at the dinner table,” he said.

What did Biden say about Trump?

Trump cast a long shadow over the speech, with Biden’s prepared remarks referring to his “predecessor” more than a dozen times. He opened with a thinly veiled reference to the threat he believed Trump posed to American democracy.

“My predecessor and some of you here seek to bury the truth of January 6. I will not do that,” Biden said in reference to the 2021 attack on the US Capitol. “Here’s the simplest truth. You can’t love your country only when you win.”

Trump published a video attacking Biden ahead of the speech and reacted in near real time with a flurry of scathing posts on his Truth Social platform, commenting on everything from Biden’s policy proposals to his coughing. “He looks so angry when he’s talking, which is a trait of people who know they are ‘losing it’,” he said in one post.

What was Biden’s message on the Middle East and Ukraine?

The president offered some of his most pointed criticism of Israel’s conduct in its war against Hamas, saying the country’s leaders must prioritise humanitarian assistance to the more than 2mn people in Gaza.

“Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip. Protecting and saving innocent lives has to be a priority,” Biden said.

“The president made it unmistakably clear that Israel needs to do — and the president expects them to do — a great deal more with regard to facilitating humanitarian assistance into Gaza,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

After announcing that the US would establish a temporary pier in Gaza to create a maritime route for additional aid, Biden said Israel must “do its part” to allow more assistance into Gaza and ensure humanitarian workers are not caught in the crossfire.

He also urged Congress to “stand up to Putin” and send him a bipartisan national security bill. “If the United States walks away, it will put Ukraine at risk. Europe is at risk,” he said. His message to Russian President Vladimir Putin was simple, he added: “We will not walk away.”

What was Biden’s economic message?

Biden’s tone on the economy was triumphant. “I inherited an economy that was on the brink,” he said. “Now our economy is the envy of the world.”

Most economists agree that the administration has plenty to brag about. US growth last year was the strongest of any large advanced economy, while inflation fell faster. Analysts are upgrading their projections based on signs that unemployment will stay close to 50-year lows.

But voters, hit by soaring grocery prices and housing costs, have been more circumspect. Biden aimed to reassure them by going after “shrinkflation” — in which companies sell new, smaller versions of products without changing the price — and pledging to make housing more affordable.

He also took aim at big businesses and billionaires, whom he said would “finally begin to pay their fair share”. A minimum tax of 25 per cent on the 1,000 richest Americans would raise $500bn over 10 years, he said, going some way to close the US’s yawning fiscal deficits. Corporations would pay at least 21 per cent in tax, he said.

From left, Supreme Court justices John Roberts, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh
Joe Biden tore into the US Supreme Court for overturning Roe vs Wade, the 1973 decision that had enshrined the constitutional right to an abortion © Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg

How did Biden handle the politics of abortion?

Biden put reproductive rights front and centre in his speech, tearing into the US Supreme Court for overturning Roe vs Wade and criticising Republican lawmakers for seeking to restrict access to abortion and, more recently, in vitro fertilisation treatments.

“There are state laws banning the right to choose, criminalising doctors and forcing survivors of rape and incest to leave their states as well to get the care they need,” Biden said. “Many of you in this chamber and my predecessor are promising to pass a national ban on reproductive freedom. My God, what freedoms will you take away next?”

Reproductive rights have been a galvanising issue for Democrats since Roe, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that had enshrined the constitutional right to an abortion, was overturned in 2022. That catapulted the party to electoral victories in that year and last year. Biden conveyed confidence that voters — and women voters in particular — would do the same again in November.

“Clearly, those bragging about overturning Roe vs Wade have no clue about the power of women,” he said.

Did Biden change tack on immigration?

The evening’s most heated moments came as Biden accused Trump — though not by name — of “playing politics” with border security.

Over jeers from Republicans, the president blamed his predecessor for scuttling a bipartisan border bill for political gain. “We can fight about fixing the border, or we can fix it,” he said. “I’m ready to fix it. Send me the border bill now.”

Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, described Biden’s speech afterwards as “a dog-and-pony show to convince the American people that his administration is keeping America safe”.

Biden went off script after chants of “say her name” from Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene — a reference to Laken Riley, a nursing student killed last month, allegedly by an immigrant.

Producing a badge bearing Riley’s name, he called her “an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal — that’s right — but how many thousands of people have been killed by legals?”

The president also sought to draw a sharp contrast with Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, calling America “the only nation in the world with a heart and soul that draws from old and new”.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, left, speaks to Joe Biden as he arrives in Congress to deliver the State of the Union address
Marjorie Taylor Greene, left, urged President Joe Biden to ‘say her name’, a reference to Laken Riley, a nursing student killed last month, allegedly by an immigrant © Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

How did Biden pitch his energy and climate policy?

Biden boasted of making history by “confronting the climate crisis, not denying it” and “taking the most significant action ever on climate in the history of the world”.

The Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $369bn in green subsidies to help turbocharge the rollout of clean energy across the US, has been one of Biden’s signature legislative achievements. Biden highlighted $650bn of new private sector investments in clean energy, creating tens of thousands of US jobs.

But he also took a swing at Republicans who had voted against that law and his infrastructure act, which contained cash for roads and bridges, along with electric vehicle chargers.

“I noticed some of you who voted against it are there cheering on that money coming in,” he said. “If any of you don’t want that money in your district, let me know.”

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